Tuesday, August 25, 2015

On religion: Finding spirituality through nature

Peaceful summer morning / Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C.

Summer vacation is a time of the year when many of us take advantage of our beautiful natural resources. We enjoy escaping urban environments in favor of wide open spaces. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that our beaches, lakes, hills and mountains provide us with a much-needed respite from our busy, fast-paced lives.

However, one thing I recently learned that may come as a surprise to you is this: Nature may have a profound effect on our religiosity. 

Golden Gate Bridge /
San Francisco, California.
In an NPR "Cosmos & Culture" commentary penned by Barbara J. King, which I recently read on the NPR website, she noted that in U.S. counties with warm winters, temperate summers and beautiful natural resources -- sounds to me like she's describing the San Francisco Bay Area -- "people's rates of affiliation with religious organizations are lower than in other places, according to a new study."

Fountain Lake /
Albert Lea, Minnesota.
King is an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary who often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. In her commentary, she cited a study by Todd W. Ferguson and Jeffrey A. Tamburello of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who wrote in the journal Sociology of Religion: "Natural amenities can be considered as a resource for spirituality that has the power to satisfy some people's need for inspiration, awe and divine connection ... 

Mount Rainier / On a clear day,
you can see it from Seattle.
"When a person hikes in a forest to connect with the sacred, she or he may not feel the need to affiliate with a religious organization because her or his spiritual demands are met." 

Imagine that! God is competing against Mother Nature on Sundays for our spiritual attention.

King writes: "Worshipping God, affiliating with a religious organization and experiencing a sense of spirituality may all overlap -- but certainly they're not the same." She asks: "How do the Baylor researchers distinguish these dimensions, and how did they measure an area's natural resources?" 

Allium summer flowers.
Good food for thought, definitely, and King seeks to answer these questions through breaking down what the Baylor researchers have written in their study.

Granted, not everyone who we see outdoors soaking up nature -- whether it be absorbing sunshine at the beach, jogging around a city lake, hiking through foothills or climbing mountains -- is communing with the sacred. 

However, I think it's pretty cool to know that it's a spiritual experience for us to encounter the sacred in nature.

All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2015.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Is Amazon's company culture innovative or punishing?

Amazon / More than just a dot.com that sells books and music.

The play story on the cover of Sunday's print edition of The New York Times, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace" by Jodi Kantor with help from David Streitfeld, has grabbed the nation's attention and lit up social media, but not necessarily for all the right reasons. According to Kantor, Amazon is conducting an experiment in how far it can push its force of white-collar workers in order to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.

Amazon is the U.S.'s biggest retailer with a market capitalization of $250 billion -- bigger than Wal-Mart and Target -- and most of us know this dot-com powerhouse from being consumers. Indeed, they've come a long way since being just an online retailer for books and music. Now, it's possible to buy over 20 million items -- from Amazon's Kindle to digital cameras to even toilet paper -- and if you're willing to pay the price for Amazon Prime, you can have it delivered the next day.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos
Part of the success that Seattle-based Amazon has enjoyed starts with its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who is the fifth-richest man in the world -- yes, the world. According to Kantor, part of Bezos's success can be attributed to his inventing a way to get the most out of every employee. Yet, while some may look at his management style as draconian, others consider some of the data-driven tactics and practices coupled with the passive-aggressive work environment he's promoted at Amazon as innovative and fascinating.

One thing's for sure, Amazon has a reputation for having hard-working employees. "They do pride themselves on being a tough culture," said Kantor on Monday in an interview with American Public Media's "Marketplace" program, which aired nationwide via NPR. "You know Bezos tells people 'This is a culture of working incredibly hard.' They use the phrase 'unreasonably high' to describe their standards and expectations."

According to Kantor, who interviewed current and former employees over the past six months which included several executives, employees value a lot of aspects about Amazon, including the fact that "it's a culture of innovation, there isn't a lot of red tape, relatively junior people can have a lot of responsibility." However, in reading her damning Sunday story in The New York Times about Amazon's company culture, it came across to me -- and I'm sure was noticeable to everyone -- that Amazon's employees are being hurt by the harsh company culture. "I found that in most of our interviews, we were talking to people who really loved aspects of working for the company, but they were struggling with this kind of punishing culture," she said during her "Marketplace" interview.

Among the practices which Kantor cited that upset Amazon employees included how team members had to compete with one another. "Team members are ranked against each other," said Kantor. "It's a very competitive atmosphere." Yet, because of this, it has morphed into an uncomfortable working environment. Imagine, because of this particular directness, it's possible to send secret negative feedback about your peers to your peers' bosses. While the bosses see who it's from, other workers are not privy to this information.

On Monday, Mr. Bezos responded to The New York Times article about Amazon's uncompromising attitude and hard-hitting management style, saying "I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market."

In a letter to Amazon's 180,000 employees, Mr. Bezos added: "I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

"But hopefully, you don't recognize the company described. Hopefully, you're having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way."

It became very apparent from reading Kantor's article that work-life balance -- the "Amazon way" that promotes climbing the wall after you've hit the wall -- skews towards employees who rank their work life more important than their personal life. Amazon, by all accounts, has perfected a balance between pushing its employees to the brink -- driven to tears amid a climate of fear -- while making sure they haven't hit their breaking point.

I can imagine Amazon employees asking themselves the following questions: "Is this right for me? Do I really want to work this way?"

Where do you draw the line?

If anything, after reading The New York Times article, I hope it brings the debate about workplace culture into the open and starts a public discussion about Amazon.

Listen to Jodi Kantor's "Marketplace" interview:

Read the New York Times article:

Photos and images: Courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Quality of Life: Naming the best places to call home

No. 1 Tokyo / Provides great quality of life for those who live and visit.

"What makes the good life and where can we find it?" asks Monocle, the global affairs and culture magazine that's published in London. While great cities adapt and change like their residents, it's worth asking: How do we create cities that deliver quality of life for everyone?

Stanley Park / Vancouver, B.C. 
It's no secret that the best cities in the world are ones which are vibrant and offer the best quality of life for their residents. The best city environments are those which are tolerant and open-minded, celebrate diversity, have great universities and welcome creativity. Having quality independent bookshops, green spaces and clean streets as well as efficient transportation systems are big pluses, too.

In summer 2007 when the magazine was still just a few months old, Monocle launched its inaugural Quality of Life list, naming the best global cities to call home. Munich was the first No. 1. Over the years, its added new metrics that take into account both intangibles and infrastructure which have led to some dramatic changes and brought about a new world order. While London, Paris and Rome remain three of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, their popularity doesn't necessarily translate into great places to live.

Place de la Concorde / Paris
"Now we know we are not the only people to draw up a ranking of great metropolises but ours is different," writes Monocle editor Andrew Tuck, in the preface to this year's Quality of Life list. "For a start we ensure that we are not just looking at data about the quality of education or the cleanliness of the streets but also the softer elements that inspire you to make a city your base: cinemas, bars, opening hours. And while much of our survey is pretty data-driven we are happy to say that a good amount comes from the views of our correspondents and editors. And it is also tilted to our readers' needs; we know, for example, that while that Alpine city is cute it's also woefully disconnected and lacks even a modest airport -- so it's not in the running for us."

This year, Monocle also took into account another annoyance: "cities where the cost of living prohibits old bookshops from staying in business or young entrepreneurs finding a start-up space." I guess that's why San Francisco didn't make the Top 25 and Portland, Oregon did.

So, when the ninth annual Quality of Life list was published in Monocle's July/August issue, a new number one emerged for 2015 -- say hello to world No. 1 Tokyo.

On Tokyo, Monocle wrote: "A new and worthy winner. Monocle has made little secret of its love for Tokyo through the years and it does something no other global city can: provides great quality of life for those who live and visit. London and New York, take note.

"Tokyo has appealed to many outsiders and for many different reasons: its cleanliness, tolerance, politeness and difference, as well as its sheer scale, which has always allowed foreigners to bathe in comfortable anonymity. ... It was recently identified as the world's safest city, a stereotype that residents can happily attest to. ... At the heart of this unexpected sense of security is Tokyo's defining paradox: its heart-stopping size and concurrent feeling of peace and quiet."

Powell's City of Books / Portland, Oregon
Monocle asked its contributors, which included architects, chefs, writers and directors, to consider what draws them to their favorite cities and what quality of life means to them.

"Quality of life is ... simple pleasures," wrote Mari Shapiro, founding director of Protocinema, which creates contemporary-art exhibitions. "What makes life good is simultaneously a very simple and complicated question. It is about being in a city that allows you to do or have what makes you happy. Ultimately, this issue often comes down to class and economy and the cities with the best quality of life are those in which the basic pleasures -- to be safe, to have the time to enjoy food, to be engaged with culture, with friends and family -- are available to people of any means. At the top of my list is Istanbul: a strong cay or a grilled fish for a few lira by the Bosphorus is available to anyone."

Bloemenmarkt / Amsterdam 
One thing Monocle hopes, as in previous years, is that the Quality of Life list provokes a stimulating and lively debate.

At the very least, for me, it's always interesting to pour over the list and see how many of the cities I've visited in person -- six (Vancouver, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam and Portland).

Here is Monocle's 2015 Quality of Life ranking of the top 25 cities in the world:

  • 1. Tokyo
  • 2. Vienna
  • 3. Berlin
  • 4. Melbourne
  • 5. Sydney
  • 6. Stockholm
  • 7. Vancouver
  • 8. Helsinki
  • 9. Munich
  • 10. (tie) Zürich and Copenhagen
  • 12. Fukuoka
  • 13. Singapore
  • 14. Kyoto
  • 15. Paris
  • 16. Madrid
  • 17. Auckland
  • 18. Lisbon
  • 19. Hong Kong
  • 20. Amsterdam
  • 21. Hamburg
  • 22. Geneva
  • 23. Oslo
  • 24. Barcelona
  • 25. Portland
To watch a film on the Monocle Quality of Life Survey 2015:

Photographs: Tokyo - Google Images; Amsterdam, Paris, Portland, and Vancouver by Michael Dickens © 2012 and 2015.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A vacation journey: In omnibus glorificetur Deus

Saint John's University Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota

Last Tuesday, during the fourth day of our week-long midwest vacation visiting family, my wife and I decided to pause during our long, six-hour drive from Fargo, North Dakota to Albert Lea, Minnesota for a chance to rest and reflect. We detoured off Interstate 94 at exit 156 and drove our Chevy Malibu rental car a short distance to the campus of Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. It was the first time I had seen the Saint John's campus in all the years I had been living in or visiting Minnesota, and the walk we shared over the next half an hour exploring the architecture and common spaces, including the Abbey Church and Great Hall, was most enjoyable. 

While there, at exactly 4 o'clock, we heard the five bells of the Abbey Church sound the afternoon hours -- they broke the quiet solitude felt across the campus -- which made our sense of mission on this cloudy afternoon all the more worthwhile. 

Saint Benedict / He led a monastic life
and became a patron saint of students.
The Abbey and the University are both rich in history. First, Saint John's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery affiliated with the American-Cassinese Congregation, was established in 1856 following the arrival in the area of monks from Saint Vincent Archabbey of Labtrobe, Pennsylvania. They settled on the banks of the Mississippi River in Saint Cloud. 

Their purpose, I learned, was to provide parishes, missions and schools for immigrant German Catholics. 

Saint John's Preparatory School, University and Seminary all began on November 10, 1857, when Cornelius Wittman, monk of Saint John's, began instructing five students -- yes, just five students -- in the classic liberal arts. 

The university is Minnesota's oldest continuous institution of higher learning. Early in the 1860s, the monks left Saint Cloud for the present-day site of Saint John's, in Collegeville, on land known as Indian Bush. Today, the campus covers approximately 2,700 acres of forest, lakes, prairies and wetlands.

The Abbey Church, the focal point of the campus, was designed by the modernist Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer and built between 1958 and 1961. It is made of concrete and is faced on the outside with local granite. I learned that the board forms were oiled before the concrete was poured so that the finished interior surface would show the grain of wood.

The Bell Banner / The five bells are dedicated to:
 the Holy Trinity, Mary the Mother of God, the Guardian
Angels, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Benedict.
Dominating the front of the Abbey Church is the Bell Banner, which is 112 feet high and 100 feet wide. It holds aloft the cross, which is the sign of Christian salvation "and boldly announces the Church." The cross is fabricated of white oak from local forests. The banner reflects the sunlight into the north façade and holds the bells, which replaced the bells from the old Abbey Church in 1989. At that time, Abbot Jerome Theisen "baptized" the bells and dedicated them to: the Holy Trinity, Mary the Mother of God, the Guardian Angels, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Benedict. The largest of the bells weighs four tons and 30 pounds.

Visually, the Abbey Church expresses the entire family of Saint John's -- its monks, the students as well as staff, parish, friends and guests -- as they gather in worship around a single altar. It was consecrated more than 50  years ago in 1961. Now, four times each day, the monks and their guests gather in the Abbey Church for the celebration of Morning Prayer (7 a.m.), Midday Prayer (Noon), the Eucharist (5 p.m.) and Evening Prayer (7 p.m.). 

The Great Hall / Built in 1879, it served as the
original Abbey Church until 1961.
The Abbey Church replaced the Great Hall, a Romanesque structure that was built in 1879 and which served as the abbey church until 1961. Inside, the mural of Christ in the apse is a focal point of the Great Hall. It was painted by Clement Frischauf, a monk of Saint John's, during the last renovation in 1938. I learned that it is one of the foremost examples of Beuronese art in the U.S. There is also stained glass windows, installed when the building was completed, which depict symbols from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as well as images of men and women Benedictine saints. 

The Great Hall is now used as a greeting and gathering place as well as a performance space for social, religious, educational and artistic functions.

In researching the history of Saint John's University, I learned that since 1856 the university has produced its own coarse-grained bread, known as "Johnnie Bread," and uses the proceeds to fund projects such as the Abbey Church. It is also the home of the famous Saint John's Bible. Each year, people come from around the world to visit the campus to see its pages on display in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.

Inside the Great Hall / The mural of Christ is not only a focal point, it is
also one of the foremost examples of Beuronese art in the U.S.

As for Saint John's University, it is comprised of a liberal arts college for men, a graduate school of theology for men and women, and seminary for priesthood candidates. Academically, the college is in partnership with the College of Saint Benedict in nearby Saint Joseph, just four miles from the Saint John's campus. Students attend classes and activities together, and have access to the resources of both campuses.

Together, the two schools have a combined undergraduate enrollment of about 4,000 students. The joint faculty consists of about 350 professors, mostly full-time, permanent appointees.

Near the end of our walk on the Saint John's campus, we strode across the Quadrangle. On the west tower are the initials I.O.G.D. carved in yellow brick. They stand for an ancient Benedictine motto, taken from the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict: In omnibus glorificetur Deus -- that God may be glorified in all things.

All photographs: © 2015 by Michael Dickens.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Renegade Craft Fair: A celebration of all things handmade

Renegade Craft Fair / This annual event has become one of my favorite
San Francisco things to do.

The Renegade Craft Fair at San Francisco's Fort Mason is a celebration of all things handmade in a variety of media. Last weekend's annual Renegade event provided hundreds of artists and craft makers a chance to escape their studios and step into a relaxed, festive and lively atmosphere.

Since its debut in 2003, the Renegade Craft Fair has showcased the best and brightest in Etsy indie craft and design, and it's become a major player in a booming DIY (Do It Yourself) craft movement in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Each year, the Renegade Craft Fair visits seven U.S. cities (Austin, Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle) plus London. The San Francisco summer happening comes in mid-to-late July. I've been a Renegade Craft Fair goer for the past five summers, and it's become one of my favorite San Francisco things to do.

BambuEarth / Natural, sustainable, ethical, vegan, local
handmade soap.
From new and traditional to modern and innovative, there's always a diversity of art and style at the Renegade Craft Fair and this year was no different from the past. For me, I find it truly interesting to see what's new and hip in the areas of art, clothing, jewelry, photography, quilts, toys and other knick-knacks -- and to be able to meet and mingle with the artists behind these creations.

On Sunday, my wife and I were among thousands gathered inside both the Herbst Pavilion and the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason to see over 450 modern makers of art.

There were arts and crafts enthusiasts, a poetry store, media scouts and taste makers -- even savvy shoppers stocking up early on unique, artist-created gifts for the end of the year holidays.

Of the 2015 Renegade San Francisco craft makers, one in particular garnered my interest and attention: Jordan Graves, a young, twenty-something artist from Savannah, Ga., whose Repeat Offfender -- yes with 3 f's in Offfender -- whose multi-disciplinary approach to art "generates patterns with digital artifacts for surface design, jewelry, and motion graphics."

According to her website, the multidisciplinary work of Repeat Offfender grew out of Graves' work towards a B.F.A. degree in Motion Media Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Sprouted Spirals / 3D printed jewelry by Jordan Graves.
Graves greeted my wife and I with a cute and polite smile as we perused her creative and colorful stud earrings -- she calls them "Sprouted Spirals."

They came in a variety of cool colors, including: white, black, red, blue, pink, purple, orange and yellow.

We were excited and so was Graves.

I asked what inspired her art and without any hesitation, Graves answered my question with interest and enthusiasm by saying it was her interest in textile design combined with a passion for digital roots -- you know, mathematics. Thus, Graves' combination of interests morphed into her unique creation of 3D printed jewelry.

Perusing Graves' website for Repeat Offfender is not only enjoyable, it's also about taking a deeper look into how she bridges her motion graphics background into her work and to see what is influencing her new collections. It's all about happy bright colors.

Photographs: BambuEarth by Michael Dickens ©2015; Repeat Offfender booth and Sprouted Spirals courtesy of RepeatOfffender.com. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Yountville: Come for the food and wine, stay for the art

A New Spin / Napa Valley artist Freeland Tanner's 2014 sculpture is
comprised of Cedar and Redwood grape stakes and repurposed poplar wood.

The town of Yountville is quickly becoming synonymous with art as it is with food and wine. Look around and you'll see how the influences from vintner culture, wine industry, culinary and arts converge in this lovely destination situated along Highway 29 in the heart of California's Napa Valley, about 60 miles outside San Francisco.

Bouchon / One of Yountville's
 world-class dining experiences.
While French Laundry and Bouchon brought Michelin stars and accolades -- and helped transform Yountville into a world-class destination for food -- there's been a push to show a creative, artsy side in a very public and profound way thanks to the installation of outdoor sculptures. The output of artwork doting Yountville has been very inspiring and has helped turn this wine country town into an outdoor art gallery.

Balance by Sherry Tobin.
Locals or tourists who walk along Yountville's Washington Street, the town's main thoroughfare, will notice about three dozen pieces of outdoor sculpture. The town went on an art binge beginning about three years ago by installing sculptures by local artists and some internationally-known ones, too.

While some of the sculptures are subtle in their quality, most are quite colorful and grab one's attention. Each is a welcome sight and during a recent visit, I noticed, many were magnets for both serious photographers as well as tourists stopping to take selfies.

Trellis Way to the Sky
by Freeland Tanner.
Each sculpture is well signed with information such as title, artist and composition. And, best of all, each is for sale with a percentage of the sales benefitting the Yountville Arts Fund which helps provide continued support for arts related activities and events in Yountville.

As someone who has returned often to Yountville to enjoy its culinary aspects, at Bouchon as well as Ad Hoc and Redd Wood, I've seen the town evolve nicely over the past 20 years. Now, the outdoor sculptures have become an essential and enjoyable component of the Yountville experience just like the puff pastries and macarons at Bouchon Bakery.

Indeed, come for the food and wine, stay for the art.

All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2015.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On baseball: At San Francisco's retro AT&T Park, free knothole area offers fans unique view of players and field

The Giants' AT&T Park / A jewel of a baseball park along San Francisco Bay.
Tickets to see the San Francisco Giants play along the water's edge of San Francisco Bay in their jewel of a baseball park, AT&T Park, are both pricey and tough to obtain. Winning three World Series during a five-year span easily caused the demand to exceed the supply.

So, the Giants offer a free standing room viewing area at AT&T Park. It's one-third of the view but for none of the price.

Indeed, it's a priceless experience that not only offers a unique view of the field -- close enough to smell the grass -- but also a chance to shout out a "hello" to Giants right fielder Hunter Pence.

The knothole area provides a viewing portal through a
chain-link fence into the Giants' ballpark.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, my wife and I took advantage of the opportunity to stroll up and stand in the "knothole" area under one of the three arches at the base of the 24-foot high brick wall in right field that provides a viewing portal through a chain-link fence into the Giants' ballpark.

The knothole area underneath the right field arcade is one of many retro features that arrived when AT&T Park (then known as Pac Bell Park) opened in 2000. None of the other 29 Major League ballparks across the country include such a viewing section as part of a built-in feature. From what I've learned, the idea behind the knothole area was to attract passersby to drop in from the adjoining promenade who might not otherwise be inclined to watch.

The view from the knothole / The Giants'
Hunter Pence at bat with Joe Panik on base.
There are few rules for watching from this area -- no cursing, no folding chairs, no alcohol, no pets -- and it can accommodate up to about 75 fans at a time.

When necessary, such as when this is a sought-out spot during the playoffs and World Series, fans are rotated in and out every three innings. On the day we visited, we could have stayed as long as we liked. The knothole area was only about one-third full.

There aren't many amenities, so if you plan to stay a while you may wish to bring along your own snacks or purchase something from the nearby Yard at McCovey Cove, which features a variety of food and beverage options.

With our backs facing the boardwalk along McCovey Cove, we stood and watched as various Giants players -- among them, Pence and Madison Bumgarner -- warmed up for the game.

Madison Bumgarner / Everyone wanted to take his picture.
Pence ran wind sprints across the outfield while Bumgarner, the MVP of the 2014 World Series, threw to battery mate Buster Posey in the Giants' bullpen. We also saw several other Giants players -- Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik and Mike Duffy -- come out on the field to run sprints and play catch.

At 1:05 p.m., it was "Game On." We stayed for the first inning and absorbed the view. Then, it was time to head into the breezy San Francisco afternoon in search of lunch and other adventures.

All photos by Michael Dickens © 2015.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

An imperfect rendition: "... how sweet the sound"

President Obama / An imperfect rendition of "Amazing Grace
brought the room to its feet and resonated with an entire nation.

Last Friday, President Obama moved a congregation -- and a nation -- when he broke out into spontaneous song, singing "Amazing Grace" at the conclusion of his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine slain members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina.

That President Obama broke out in an imperfect rendition of this most spiritual of American songs was so unexpected. His surprising ability to make the music connect reaffirmed for us that music is, indeed, a ministry, one of the deepest expressions of the Christian faith. 

"Music is almost to me an echo of the sounds of the divine world, and when you hear these sounds, it stirs something deeply spiritual within you," said Grammy-nominated gospel singer Wintley Phipps, who has sung for every president since Ronald Reagan and who sang at President Barack Obama's National Prayer Service following his inauguration. In a 2009 interview with PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program, Phipps went on to say: "Music also is the most powerful way of impressing the human mind with hope."

In describing "Amazing Grace," the newsweekly magazine Time wrote: "Amazing Grace was written by an Englishman who in the early part of his life was an outspoken atheist, libertine, and slave trader. John Newton was born in London in 1725, the son of a Puritan mother and a stern ship commander father who took him to sea when he was 11 (“I am persuaded that he loved me but he seemed not willing that I should know it,” he later wrote).

"By 1745, Newton was enlisted in the slave trade, running captured slaves from Africa to, ironically, Charleston, S.C. After he rode out a storm at sea in 1748, he found his faith. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764 and became an important voice in the English abolitionist movement. At that time he wrote the autobiographical 'Amazing Grace,' along with 280 other hymns."

President Obama embraced race and religion in his moving address in Charleston, saying: "As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind. He's given us the chance, where we've been lost, to find our best selves." He named each victim of the church shooting and declaring each "had grace."

At the conclusion of his eulogy, President Obama turned to "Amazing Grace" -- a go-to hymn at American funerals -- as a means of comforting the grieving families. It's been said that the African American spiritual teaches each of us that we're going to come up rough sides of mountains, and from time to time experience difficulties in our lives. However, we learn, faith gives us the ability to weather any storm.

"As the president segued from the words 'amazing grace' into the musical notes of 'Amazing Grace,' the audience members could be heard murmuring their surprise," wrote the Los Angeles Times. "So unlikely was it that a leader of the free world would try singing his way out of a eulogy that many weren't sure whether to believe he was. The fact that Obama's singing was a little off-key only seemed to help the cause, inspiring the audience to join in instead of just sitting back and listening."

Indeed, as we observed, President Obama's "Amazing Grace" moment showed us all what a little music could do in the right context. It was a moment in which he notably brought the room to its feet and resonated with an entire nation.

To see a video of President Obama singing "Amazing Grace":

To learn more about "Amazing Grace":

Photo: Courtesy of CNN.com and Google images.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

At the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015: It's win and go on or lose and go home for the Americans

At the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 / More than 50,000 fans --
mostly Americans -- cheer on Team USA against Nigeria at B.C. Place 

in Vancouver, B.C., Canada  on June 16.

The United States national football team advanced to the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 quarterfinals with a 2-0 victory Monday evening over Colombia. The Americans wore down an inferior opponent, Las Chicas Superpoderosas as the Columbians are nicknamedwhich played much of the second half with just 10 players, in this elimination-round match at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta.

The U.S. victory was a bit of a mixed-bag performance just like its other wins earlier in the month-long World Cup tournament being contested across the Canadian provinces from New Brunswick back east to British Columbia out west. I had the pleasure of witnessing Team USA's 1-0 triumph over Nigeria last week in Vancouver, B.C., with my wife and our longtime friends from Seattle, along with more than 50,000 -- mostly American -- football enthusiasts.

On Friday, the second-ranked Americans will face China for the first time at a World Cup since the July 1999 final, when Brandi Chastain buried a penalty kick at the Rose Bowl that brought the U.S its most recent title. Although the U.S. has dominated China in recent years -- undefeated in 24 matches dating to 2003 -- it hasn't escaped the shadow of 1999, a 16-year drought in which the Americans haven't managed to win another World Cup.

Megan Rapinoe / Team USA's midfielder
arguably has been their best player, but

will miss Friday's quarterfinal against China.
The U.S. will be without midfielder Megan Rapinoe, arguably its best player of the tournament, who has received one too many yellow cards in this World Cup. Ditto for midfielder Lauren Holiday. With the unsteady play of 35-year-old striker and all-time leading scorer Abby Wambach, who has blamed the artificial turf for her uneven performance, don't be surprised if coach Jill Ellis calls upon attackers Sydney Leroux and Christen Press, if she opts for the U.S. to play a pressing style. Some critics -- validly -- have argued that the U.S. offense hasn't been clicking, hasn't shown fluidity.

With 25 years' worth of World Cup experience on its roster, one thing Team USA has going for it is a stingy defense anchored by the outstanding play of goal keeper Hope Solo. For all the well-documented problems related to domestic violence she's faced off the field, on it she's been steady and focused, not surrendering a goal in the past 333 minutes since early in the first game against Australia.

Hope Solo /
Team USA's controversial goal keeper has not allowed
a goal in over 300 minutes. She has recorded three
consecutive shut outs. 
If the U.S. is to reach the last four and earn a return trip to Vancouver, site of next week's final, it needs to generate more offense. Whether it's been the result of being too predictable or uptight, six goals in four matches is not much for the Americans to gloat about. After a nice beginning, a 3-1 victory against Australia, the U.S. played to a 0-0 tie against Sweden and followed it with a 1-0 win over Nigeria. Meanwhile, quarterfinalists Germany has 19 goals and France 9. Those two teams, which meet later this week in Montreal, are on the same side of the bracket as the U.S. On the other side of the draw, there's host Canada, Australia, England and defending World Cup champion Japan.

Hopefully, the U.S. can find an offensive spark against China on Friday in Ottawa. Alex Morgan has shown much promise since returning from an injury,  and she scored one of the two U.S. goals against Colombia. There's not much room for error and, going forward, it's survival of the fittest. After all, the stakes have increased.

Team USA's Abby Wambach / "We're still a work in progress."
"There's no doubt in my mind that we'll be peaking at the right moment," midfielder Carli Lloyd recently said. "And that's the most important thing."

Wambach added: "We're still a work in progress.  I don't want to be peaking until we're standing on that top podium at the end of the tournament. That is the moment when everything comes together, when everything fits."

Now, it's win and go on or lose and go home for the Americans.

A postscript: On June 26 in Ottawa, Ontario, a Carli Lloyd header in the 51st minute enabled Team USA to beat China 1-0 and advance to next Tuesday's semifinal against top-seeded Germany. Earlier Friday in Montréal, Quebec, the top-seeded Germans prevailed over France on penalty kicks (5-4) after playing to a scoreless tie in overtime.

A second postscript: On Tuesday night in Montréal, Quebec, Carli Lloyd scored on a second-half penalty kick and assisted on another goal as Team USA defeated top-seeded Germany 2-0 to advance to Sunday's championship match. The U.S., which has not given up a goal in the past 513 minutes of World Cup play, will face Japan. It is a rematch of the 2011 championship game in Germany, in which Japan won on penalty kicks after playing to a 2-2 draw. The U.S. owns a 21-4-6 advantage over Japan.

A final postscript: A stunning first-half hat trick by Carli Lloyd in the game's first 16 minutes enabled the U.S. to beat rival Japan 5-2 to secure the 2015 Women's World Cup championship. It was the third World Cup title for the U.S. and first since 1999.

All photos by Michael Dickens © 2015. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Roland Garros: From inside the baselines, Wawrinka's moxie and power reigned during this Parisian fortnight

2015 French Open poster art by Chinese artist Du Zhenjun / 
Drawing upon his Asian roots and from contemporary Western art.

Each year in late spring, the French Open in Paris serves as a grading period -- a report card if you will -- for professional tennis. It's the second of the year's four Grand Slam events -- the others are the Australian Open in January, Wimbledon in late June and the U.S. Open in August near the end of summer  -- and all the big names in men's professional tennis came to famed Roland Garros to complete for the Coupe des Mousquetaires, or the Cup of the Musketeers.

A funny thing happened by the end of the red clay fortnight on Sunday: None of the elite Big Four -- Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray or Rafael Nadal -- won the Coupe. Instead, it was Stan Wawrinka, he of the funny plaid shorts and winner of one previous Grand Slam final -- the 2014 Australian Open -- who prevailed in come-from-behind fashion. At the end of the day, the Swiss raised the champion's trophy after beating Djokovic with moxie and precision power in four sets, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. A year ago, Wawrinka was a first-round loser. What a difference a year made for Stan the Man.

In leading up to Sunday's championship finale on Court Philippe Chatrier, three of the Big Four had fallen by the wayside: Federer was sent packing for Wimbledon in straight sets by Wawrinka in the quarterfinals; and Murray, the Scot who for the past year has been coached by French darling Amelie Mauresmo, took out David Ferrer in a tension-filled quarterfinal before he was stubbornly knocked out by Djokovic in a semifinal match that required two days to complete because of rain.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday, the much-anticipated men's singles quarterfinal match-up between World No. 1 Djokovic of Serbia and nine-time defending champion Nadal of Spain, who arrived in Paris as the sixth seed and whose usually-strong game on clay showing signs of weakness and fatigue, was won convincingly by Djokovic. He stunned Nadal in straight sets -- it wasn't even close -- and, thus, ended the King of Clay's reign in Paris.

What started two weeks ago with a 128-player draw played down to two by the last day: Djokovic, who only needed to win the French Open to complete a career Grand Slam, and Wawrinka, who has spent the past decade playing in the shadows of the more famous and acclaimed Swiss player, Federer. After Djokovic won the opening set 6-4, Wawrinka took his tennis to a new level by winning the next three sets -- playing "the match of my life" -- and, with it, the championship.

Stan Wawrinka /
2015 French Open champion
When the dust had settled on the famed Roland Garros stage, it was Wawrinka who dashed Djokovic's hopes of achieving a career grand slam. Afterwards, the 30-year-old Swiss walked into the interview room inside Court Philippe Chatrier. He hung a pair of his infamous plaid shorts over a table. No explanation was provided, just a sarcastic grin on his face. Later, when he was prompted to explain, Wawrinka said: "Everybody has been talking about these shorts since I put them on. I quite like them. Apparently I'm the only one. It's quite funny that they won the French Open."

Questionable fashion choices aside, Wawrinka was rock solid when it mattered and he showed against Djokovic that he was able to produce "big time tennis" by hitting 60 winners, no easy fete against the top player in the world. Djokovic had held a 17-3 lead over Wawrinka going into the final and had dominated the spring clay-court circuit by winning titles in Monte-Carlo and Rome. Wawrinka's world ranking improved over the fortnight from No. 9 to No. 4 with his French Open triumph, and he sealed the victory with a backhand winner.

"I'm very surprised at the way I finished the fourth set," admitted Wawrinka. "I was relaxed on my backhand side and I could hit some wonderful backhands. It's a rare feeling that you experience in a final against Djokovic. It's a great feeling.

"I'm still surprised that in two months I can win the French Open, because I wasn't in good shape after Monaco. It was a tough, tough moment for me. To say that now I won the French Open, it's something complete crazy."

Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka / 
During the trophy presentation.
When the final ended, Djokovic showed why he is always a class act in defeat. Pushed to tears, he paid full credit to Wawrinka in accepting the runner-up trophy during the on-court ceremony. It was his third final defeat on Court Philippe Chatrier, the others against Nadal.

Djokovic refused to use his own fatigue as a reason for losing. As a result of his forthright honesty, Djokovic received a prolonged standing ovation from the French crowd that was possibly the most emotional moment seen during a fortnight of tennis.

"Obviously was not easy to stand there as a runner-up again, but I lost to a better player who played some courageous tennis and deserved to win," said Djokovic, after his 28-match winning streak was ended by Wawrinka.

"I respect the appreciation the crowd showed me, and it was more or less the same situation like last year in (the) closing ceremony (after losing to Nadal). This is something that definitely gives me even more motivation to come back and keep on trying."

Djokovic continued: "There are two players who want to win this trophy, not just me. So I think people tend to create more of a story where it's just me.

"It feels like I'm the only player who wants to win this trophy and nobody wants to win it as much as I do. This is completely untrue. Every single player who is here, especially the top players, want to win this trophy as much as I do.

"Of course the finals of a grand slam and the grand slam I never won gives a special importance to my approach to the match. But I thought I started well. As I got into the match, that was not a major issue in terms of dealing with the pressure. It's just that he was better.

"At least I'm proud of the fight that I put into this match. I tried my best. It wasn't to be."

Photos: Courtesy of Getty Images; Google Images, 2015.